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A test for democracy

A test for democracy
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First Published: Thu, Dec 04 2008. 10 52 PM IST
Updated: Thu, Dec 04 2008. 10 52 PM IST
The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw famously said,“Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.” I’ve spent much of the last two years pondering if that’s the case in India.
And over the last few days of mourning Mumbai, I struggled hardest for the answer.
Not too long into its run, this column’s tone—like much of the private sector’s, even like much of the average Indian’s—grew resigned to the fact that our government had miserably failed, that it was inherently meddlesome, corrupt and inefficient. And so our ever-prosperous selves grew dangerously distanced from its ruling class. I won’t dwell too much on this reality as Ramesh Ramanathan already has lucidly done so in his Mobius Strip on Thursday in these pages (read his column, “A political awakening”, at www.livemint.com/ polawakening.htm).
A friend of mine who happens to be a regular reader often disagreed with my stances that ignored or chastized the role of bureaucracy. “But the government is the only solution here,” she said. “You’ll realize that one day.”
I did on 26 November.
Being in Assam—itself the scene of targeted, rampant carnage exactly one month ago this week—has helped my awakening. On the night of the Mumbai attacks, I needed to repair a pair of gold earrings and ventured to the Pan Bazaar section of Guwahati— the scene of one bombing on 30 October. It was completely empty; the jeweller, who designed my mother’s wedding set and mine, wondered how much longer he’d be in business.
“Don’t go,” my mother had said earlier in the day. “There could be another bomb.”
“There could be an attack anywhere,” I yelled. “Anytime.”
A few hours later, there was.
Here, the resolve to bring back normalcy has not filled markets and bazaars, much to retailers’ dismay. But in some ways, the attacks across Assam and the reaction to them triggered a small-scale, small-town version of what the country would also see happen after Mumbai.
Across walls in the central part of the city, there are slogans and billboards erected as testament. Enough is enough. No more vote-bank politics. Ulfa=ISI (the equation refers to the militant and separatist group, the United Liberation Front of Assam, and alleged links to the Inter-Services Intelligence, the intelligence agency of Pakistan).
The reaction is significant because this is a part of the country that is hardly a newcomer to terrorism. Yet this last time—where anywhere between 10 and 18 bombs went off in more than a half-dozen locations—everyone says, was different.
“All the other times, it felt like there was a target. Hindi speakers. Biharis. Army officers,” my cousin said. “Not that that’s right either. But this time, there was no target. We all felt like it could have been us.”
Sound familiar?
As in Mumbai, people here are incensed over the failure of the state, but not taking it out on its people. They are not resorting to communal violence (although I can vouch that terrible things are still uttered in drawing rooms). A young Muslim man recently contacted me to help him work on a project to improve the livelihoods of the deceased’s family members. We brainstormed the other day and he’s actually hoping the recent sentiment in the region—and the country—might help finally shed religious labels.
I look at the optimism among all my Facebook friends, starting petitions, holding candlelight vigils and protests, organizing new political parties even. And I wonder if this is how India felt in the 1950s. The other day, ironically around the time the Mumbai siege finally ended, I popped in at the printing press of a distant relative of my mother’s. Her great uncle was elected an MLA just after India gained independence. His grandsons, eager to share his story and his vision, showed me old photo albums that exuded idealism and a hunger to learn: new colleges, seminars overseas, ribbon cutting for new roads. I fingered them longingly, wondering if those days might return.
To be sure, many collective errors helped create the conditions that made the umpteenth strike in the war on India so easy. Consider Indians’ overconfidence over the last few years, this tendency to celebrate progress in spite of the gods and government, the nudge-nudge-wink-wink culture we all know. Obviously, a country can never be on course to be a superpower if it must skirt or grease its government’s palm every step of the way.
Yet I come back to this nation’s newfound spirit (hardly Mumbai’s alone), its ability to even admit it needs help and cooperation from others. In India, George Bernard Shaw’s theory on democracy might see an exception. Or if public opinion mirrors our public servants, sooner rather than later or never, we will have proven him right.
Your comments are welcome at widerangle@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Dec 04 2008. 10 52 PM IST